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January 09, 2007

Science And History

Guess I should put up a few more of those lousy Warwick Boar columns which I spew out from time to time (I have no idea what to write about at the mo, I need ideas!). This one is a good reason why historians shouldn’t buy New Scientist.

If there’s one thing that’s inherently adorable about scientists it’s that they are, by and large, made up of the more optimistic members of the species. Coming to university with big ideas about changing the world, discovering cures for stuff, and theories for making the world better and improving humans with laser powered implants. Those who continue in science after bachelors are the real optimists, remaining in possession of a faith in science despite all the 9am lectures and lack of reading weeks that university can throw at them. Want proof? Try the latest New Scientist magazine. Celebrating 50 years of the magazine it invited scientists to make predictions for the world in 2056. The vast majority are optimistic, some wildly so. Some talk excitedly of the imminence of the discovery of life on Mars, healthy people over 100 being the norm, and we can all talk to animals and become vegetarian as a result. One dementedly optimistic man thinks we’ll be able to buy a tee shirt with the equations from the unified laws of physics printed on them, though let’s be honest, even in 50 years we’re not going to be that geeky en masse, are we? Are we?

Naturally, in response to this wave of forcast innovation, the Boar has decided to allow a historian (easily the most cynical and pessimistic sort of student you will find on campus) to write about this event. Believe me, it is hard to handle when you realise that, in contrast to science and its remaining aura of loftiness and difficulty, the most profound thing to be uttered about your subject was in fact uttered about ten years ago by Dame Shirley Bassey. She’s seen it before, and she’ll see it again, it’s all just a little piece of history repeating. And we have. Everyone loves making scientific predictions about wonder inventions but the truth is most advances are rarely foreseen, and when they do arrive most people’s first instinct will be to see how they can a) break them, b) write sarcastic articles about them, or c) use them to distribute porn.

We don’t make many predictions in the Humanities but in the spirit of things here are some. One of those pseudo-scientific humanities like Psychology, or Sociology, or both, will have a unified theory of why people act like berks in groups when they are so reasonable as individuals (the Football Crowd/Armchair Fan Theory). They are also hopefully going to find out how the human mind adapts to difficult challenges like finding a room in Social Studies. Actually that might be one for the scientists, can they work out just how many dimensions are at work in that warren of corridors?

The Philosophy department are looking forward to the first entirely post modern degree in which it really doesn’t matter what mark you actually get, if you think you got a first then that’s as valid a mark as what your tutor gave you. Attempts to start the first Foucauldian degree were actually began about three years ago but then the department involved were told off for causing unnecessary suffering, not all of it physical. The History department will be combing forces with the Music Centre (which is expected to cover at least 80% of campus by 2056) to produce the first module in the utterings of Welsh divas. And all courses will have laser powered seminar tutors rather than phd students, mostly because undergraduates are less likely to complain about someone who can melt their face with a glance.

It’s the future and it’s coming. As for myself, I am going to go and look forward to the future by discovering alien life, unifying the laws of physics (it can’t be that hard, surely?), and eating bacon whilst I am still incapable of empathising with it.

November 20, 2006

Utter Rudeness

A Warwick Boar column which was commended by several people for the inventive use of swearing. See children, swearing is big and it is clever!

When I younger I went on several trips to the wonderful Granada Studios tour in Manchester. Here you could literally walk down Coronation Street, or go in one of those simulator rides which made it look like you were in Star Wars, fighting the Death Star. But, in what might be a tragic reflection of my own character, the most memorable bit for me was when we went into the mock up of the House of Commons and had a debate. I may only have been aged in single figures, but it was fun, it was exciting, it was reassuring as it seemed not to matter that I was growing up, adults still stood around being obnoxious to each other too.

The unfortunate reality was once again reinforced for me this week. More than a decade and a half of disillusionment has passed, and yet it still seemed really rather crushing that Parliament is not a fun place to have spectacular, and important, arguments. When Michael Martin, the House speaker, intervened to slap down David Cameron for asking who would succeed Tony Blair, I felt shortchanged. Of course I would like to hear Blair’s answer. But I want more from my House of Commons (yes, it is mine, I voted last time around and I’ve paid a small amount of tax in my life). I want excitement. I want tension. I want an end to those goddam stupid rules about ‘unparliamentary language’.

There are rules about what MPs can and cannot say to each other in the House. I can see the merit in some of these rules. I am in favour of the one which bans MPs from calling each other liars. If that wasn’t in place they would spend all their time calling each other liars, leaving no room for any other kind of interaction, until eventually their brains would cease higher functions leaving only a human shell accusing all in its path of lying. No, to save their intellects we must at the very least force them to think of other ways of saying what us civilians are allowed to say without any fear – many of our elected representatives have their pants on fire – with my personal favourite being Winston Churchill’s peerless “terminological inexactitude”.

But almost all insults are banned. Actual examples such as “git”, “traitor” and “rat” have been tried over the years, and all have been slapped down by the speaker. It robs us of the opportunity to see and hear some really interesting verbal punch ups, especially when it seems quite apparent that such insults are being traded behind the scenes. Imagine how much the permitted use of “twat” would enliven an early day motion about ASBOs. Revel, if you will, in the Hansard records of a full on, no word too rude, bout between John Reid and George Galloway. Bearing in mind that everyone loves hearing posh people swear, the Tories should be big exponents of the removal of these limitations as they would instantly find themselves getting voted in as the electorate races to fill parliament with amusingly upper crust types shouting “bugger” at the oiks on the other side of the floor.

And in case there are any killjoys who say that this would drag politics down I have this to say. At least this plan would be above board and honest. At least all concerned would know that it was personal, and that calling, say, Charles Clarke a “goat faced puffed up crock o’shite” is purely based on not liking him. The alternative is to be witnessed in America where insults and lies are dressed up as campaign adverts and broadcast uncritically to millions. It’s hard to fight back when a counter advertising campaign can cost millions and be broadcast too long after the initial insult to prevent it having impact. At least in a rude parliament the public will see both sides of the argument instantly… even if both sides are, apparently, “twats”.

November 18, 2006

Political Trick Or Treat

A Halloween special column for the Warwick Boar. Apparently this was good because it’s a little bit political as well as being topical (or was on 31st October anyway). However I personally think everything I write is a little bit political, and indeed everything I say, which is why I am such boring company.

Look, I know most people reading this are students and therefore will not hesitate to dress up in stupid/crazy/revealing outfits at a moment’s notice, but has it ever occurred to any of you that Halloween is a little bit suspicious? Or are you too busy trying to work out how to turn a sheet into a ghost costume without going through the hideous social faux pas of looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan?

Halloween is one of those old pagan festivals which got appropriated by the Christians in an attempt to win over the Northern Europeans. In the Christian sense it’s not even the main event anyway, that’s reserved for the 1st November, All Saint’s Day when people praise God for giving us such hits as ‘Never Ever’, ‘Pure Shores’ and that Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ cover which no one will admit to liking even though it’s as good as the original. Halloween’s recent rise in popularity is largely seen as Britain following America where it’s a much bigger event, probably because they don’t have Bonfire Night and thus need another excuse to harass innocent neighbourhoods in early autumn (Thanksgiving just doesn’t cut it).

What doesn’t seem to get commented on much is that Halloween is also seen as one big opportunity by the government. Take, for instance, the increasing propaganda from every angle to reduce the amount of excessive central heating which goes on in houses. In this modern era when some houses are requiring an area of rainforest the size of Wales daily to heat their house to its preferred ambient temperature of ‘Dubai in mid-August’, Halloween provides a chance to find out who these wasters are. Crack government teams dressed as vaguely racist looking ghosts roam the streets egging houses at random. If the egg reaches its target and instantly starts frying then the crack ghost team reports back to the council who can then authorise hundreds of door-to-door double glazing salesmen to descend on the heat freaks until they get the message and insulate their houses properly. Or they’ll tax them more. Whichever works.

There’s also the recent appearance of somewhat grotesque masks which bear a resemblance to Tony Blair, almost certainly the work of disaffected Gordon Brown supporters. You can see the extent of their disillusionment with the Blairite dream from the sheer hideousness of the masks. In years to come a Blair mask will be the must have scary item, overtaking even the current most scary masks, the Scream mask, the gratuitously realistic zombie mask, and mask of Simon Cowell (trousers not included). The ruling party has long used the relative hideousness of the prime ministerial Halloween mask as a measure of unpopularity more reliable than newspaper polls, and this year it’s been reported that the Blair visage is up there with Thatcher 1989, the year in which the Iron Lady’s mask came with a free model of the eviscerated corpse of a working class person. Clearly next year will see a new Prime Minister’s mask.

The tactics of Halloween have long been apparent in political canvassing. Large numbers of children dressed up are hard to turn away without a thought (unless you’re a student) so the aspiring MP now canvases with a small army of youthful looking minions in their wake, with an older ‘parent’ figure at the back. The victim becomes confused and usually assumes it’s just some mildly satirical children, only realising what’s really going on when they start asking about local services, not begging for sweeties. Take my advice, treat these canvassers like children at Halloween, just leave a bowl of parma violets outside the door and turn all the lights in the house off until they pass. Just don’t blame me when James Plaskitt MP starts throwing eggs.

November 17, 2006

How Crime On Campus Has Been Crushed

It’s amazing what you learn when you listen to people. It’s just a shame some people don’t listen. Here’s another Warwick Boar column which has no real moral or point.

Here’s a short brain teaser to test your Russell Group worthy brain – what piece of legislation do our very own campus security credit as the biggest single factor in reducing crime on campus in the last few years? Surprisingly it’s not the anti-terrorism laws being used to incarcerate the residents of Old Rootes in Belmarsh, nor is it the Human Rights Act (1998) forcing the inhabitants of Coventry to recognise students as actual human being rather than annoying primates in scarves and Converse. No, apparently it’s the recent laws which allow for the crushing of cars which are being driven without insurance or other essential documentation.

These are the sort of cars which see the speedometer sign on University Road and decide to get the high score. And they’re the sort most likely to be involved in the university’s most common crime, the drive-by yelling of “twat!” at some sensitive English student who has a 2500 word essay due tomorrow which they have not started, and who are now too traumatised to even think about ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. It’s also the sort of car where your laptop ends up when you leave your ground floor bedroom window open in full view of the local kleptomaniacs.

It’s a clever little rule which appears to be the result of someone noticing that those who commit crimes like stealing ipods and upsetting the sensitive arts students, are also likely to be committing other crimes. Also it’s hard to commit a decent crime when you live far away from the university and don’t have a car. If the students are failing to get to their 9am lectures for the lack of decent buses, then it’s somewhat unlikely that the thieves are going to make that arduous journey themselves. And it’s more effective than blanket bans on hoodies, a measure which would result in a large number of students here walking around, lost and scared, unable to identify other members of their tribes… I mean, societies or clubs… no, I mean tribes, and we all know that.

But this sort of joined up thinking, a sort of holistic approach I guess, is so often effective and attractive. Rather than, say, simply throwing everyone between 15 and 34 in jail or letting David Cameron hug them, why not think about the reasons they are causing crime in the first place . Anyone who comes from any of the thousands of soulless commuter towns and bland suburbs which litter this country, can tell you that building Barratt homes all over local football pitches will breed more drug taking and petty crime amongst the young. In my case if it wasn’t for the fact we had frogs in our backgarden to torment I would probably be writing this article for the Styal Women’s Prison newsletter whilst on remand for murder. Maybe.

When the Lord Chief Justice stuck his neck out this week and queried the future, and in his view most likely negative, perception of our current prison system he was shot down by the tabloids. But he may well be proved right. If jail really is the best antidote to crime why do people repeat offend, and why bother with any schemes to try and help young people who are at risk? Obviously we can’t hope to keep everyone in the country entertained or out of trouble all the time. But if we can work out why or how people are causing trouble in the first place then we might be along the right route. Then it will only be the buses aiming for the high score on the speedometer.

November 15, 2006

You Can Say That Again: How To Get Ahead In Advertising

I’ve now got my own column in the Warwick Boar which is clearly a terrible great acceptable idea by the editorial team. This was the first column and I’ll stick some more of the older ones up over the next day or so… Warning They get better, but not by much!

As anyone desperate to make it in advertising can tell you, a snappy sound bite is like a small chunky nugget of gold. Condensing the message into a handy phrase that even the most distracted commuter can absorb is a precise and somewhat hit-and-miss art. Thus the wannabe Saatchis must surely take little pleasure in those who accidentally come to define an era with their phrases. Let’s face it, even classics like “You’ve been Tangoed” cannot compare to “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

That Neil Armstrong’s words, famously, don’t quite make sense is just a part of their charm. Here he was, in the most historic position imaginable and he messed up a little. Around the world people feel relief that even the highly trained explorer heading for immortal fame was still human enough to fluff his lines. It also resonated well within the context of the times. The power of human endeavour. Another famous phrase remembered from the 1960s is “To boldly go where no one has gone before”. It was a decade which stuck its head in the clouds and those lines reflect this.

It’s the case with other decades. From the 1940s, a time of united defiance of evil forces, we recall Churchill’s speech asking the nation to “fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds… we shall never surrender”. Less well remembered is Churchill’s exchange with Lady Nancy Astor, who informed him that “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea”. Churchill’s riposte was brilliant. “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.” Funny, but it doesn’t really sit as comfortably in the memory banks of people who see Churchill as the belligerent but heroic leader.

However since the 1970s (“I am not a crook”, “Use the force, Luke”) the nuggets have become a bit dispiriting. More than a few people will recoil in horror at the thought of yuppies smarming “Greed is good” at each other across nouvelle cuisine and slap bass heavy background music (ick). And there’s the 1990s howl of “Vindaloo, na na!” which could, at a push, be a sign of multiculturalism and integration… or not. Probably not. Let’s not even bother with New Labour’s claim that “Things can only get better” as all they’ve managed is to stand perfectly still, good moves forward like the minimum wage crapped on by the fallout from the Iraq War. Plus nicking your catchphrase from a cheesy gurn of a record was never going to be a solid foundation for immortality.

So the 2000s, eh? Still a few years left but at the moment we could be looking at a curious run in for the title. In there with the best is “Not in my name”. Simple, eloquent and, for many people, an accurate representation of how they feel in these times of disenchantment with pretty much every form of authority. Interestingly it could be argued that “Not in my name” is simply the middle class version of one of its main contenders. So altogether now – “Am I bovered?”

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